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Croup is a viral upper respiratory infection that affects an estimated 3 percent of all children ages 6 months to 3 years old. It can also affect older children and adults.

In most cases, the parainfluenza virus causes croup, meaning there isn’t a cure for the condition. There are, however, many medical and at-home treatments that can help you or your little one feel better.

Keep reading for more information about how to recognize croup, what treatments can help at home, and when it’s time to see a doctor.

While croup can affect both children and adults, the condition usually impacts children significantly more.

The hallmark croup symptom is a harsh barking cough. Other symptoms may include:

These symptoms are usually worse at night. Crying also makes them worse.

Doctors don’t usually run any tests to diagnose croup. The condition is so common, they can usually recognize the symptoms by conducting a physical exam.

If a doctor wants full confirmation a child has croup, they may order an X-ray or blood testing to look for croup signs.

While croup may make a child’s cough sound terrible, the condition is usually highly treatable. An estimated 85 percent of croup cases are mild.

Comfort measures

Crying and agitation can worsen a child’s symptoms, making them feel like it’s harder to breathe. Sometimes, what might help them most is comfort.

You can offer your child lots of cuddles or watch a favorite show or movie. Other comfort measures include:

  • giving them a favorite toy to hold
  • reassuring them in a soft, soothing voice
  • rubbing their back
  • singing a favorite song

Some parents may sleep with or by their child when they have croup. This way, you can reassure them more quickly as the condition usually worsens at night.

Hydration

Staying hydrated is vital in almost any illness, croup included. Sometimes, soothing beverages like warm milk can help your child feel better. Popsicles, jello, and sips of water can also keep your child hydrated.

If your child cries without tears or doesn’t have as many wet diapers, they likely need more fluids. If you can’t get them to drink anything, call their pediatrician.

Remember that adults with croup need fluids too. Sipping cool liquids frequently can help.

Positioning

Many children find they’re able to breathe better when they’re sitting up and leaning slightly forward. Lying flat may give them the sensation they can’t breathe as well.

You can help them build a “pillow fort” to help them sleep sitting up. Cuddles are also very helpful for keeping your child sitting up.

Humidity

Humidified (warm and moist) air can help to relax a person’s vocal cords and reduce inflammation that can make it harder to breathe.

The good news is that most people have a humidifier in their house: their shower.

If your child is having a hard time breathing, take them into the bathroom and turn the shower on until steam escapes. Your child can breathe in the warm, moist air. While research hasn’t really proven this helps reduce airway irritation, it does help children to calm down and improve their breathing.

You shouldn’t, however, have your child breathe in steam from a pot of boiling water. Some children have experienced facial burns or burns to their airway from the too-hot steam.

Cool air can also help. Options include a cool mist humidifier or breathing in cool air. This can include cool air outdoors (bundle your child up first) or even breathing in front of an open freezer door.

Essential oils

Essential oils are purified compounds extracted from fruits, plants, and herbs. People breathe them in or apply them (diluted) to their skin for a number of health reasons.

People use a number of essential oils to help treat respiratory infections. Examples include:

  • anise
  • bitter fennel fruit
  • eucalyptus
  • peppermint
  • tea tree

But while these oils may be beneficial in adults, there isn’t a lot of data on their safety in children.

Also, there’s potential that a child could have an allergic reaction. For example, peppermint oil can cause laryngospasm and problems breathing in children under age 2.

Also, some essential oils (like anise and tea tree oils) can exert hormone-like effects in young children. For this reason, they’re best avoided for most children with croup.

Over-the-counter fever reducers

If your little one has a fever or sore throat in addition to their croup symptoms, over-the-counter fever reducers can help.

If your child is older than 6 months, you can give them acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). Carefully follow the directions for dosage.

Children younger than 6 months should only take acetaminophen. You can call your child’s pediatrician for a dosage based on the medicine’s concentration and your child’s weight.

Shop for remedies

Because croup doesn’t usually cause a high fever, it’s hard to know when to call a doctor or seek treatment.

In addition to a parent or caregiver’s intuition about when to go, here are a few other symptoms that indicate it’s time to call the doctor:

  • a blue tinge to the fingernails or lips
  • history of more than two croup episodes within a year
  • history of prematurity and prior intubation
  • nasal flaring (when a child is having a hard time breathing and their nostrils flare frequently)
  • sudden onset of a harsh cough (croup usually causes mild symptoms at first and peaks about one to two days after symptoms start)
  • wheezing at rest

Sometimes, other illnesses that are more severe can resemble croup. An example is epiglottitis, an inflammation of the epiglottis.

While children with croup rarely require hospitalization, some do. Doctors can prescribe steroids and breathing treatments to help your child breathe more easily.

Most parents can treat their child’s croup at home. If you’re concerned your child’s symptoms are getting worse, seek immediate medical attention.